Race and Basketball in the New York Times

Race and basketball in America are inextricably linked. Of the four (or five) major sports leagues in the United States, the NBA is the most predominantly black league. This past weekend was the NBA All-Star game, a festivity that two of my favorite NBA writers, David Aldridge and Michael Wilbon, got in trouble for calling “Black Thanksgiving” several years ago. (Side note, the quoted comments from fans in that article from look eerily like Trump-era attacks on CNN). By any measure, one of the most famous movies about basketball is about a white con-man who plays off racial assumptions to scam people in two-on-two basketball games. Entitled White Men Can’t Jump, this movie provided the inspiration for the headline of a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review about race and basketball that was so misguided it pulled me out of my grad school hiatus from writing this blog.

The article, “Even When White Men Can Jump…” is written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and author. In it, he presents an interesting analysis he worked on, determining the percent breakdown of NBA player fanbases by race based on Facebook data. The data show two things: that fans tend to root for players of their own race and that black players of similar ability to white, hispanic, or asian players tend to be more popular.

This is a clever investigation and we are indebted to Stephens-Davidowitz for performing it. Unfortunately, in two places, his racial analysis leaves a lot unsaid, to the point of being misleading. Early in the article, Stephens-Davidowitz attempts to explain the historical context of his experiment:

This is a long-debated question. For years, owners were accused of padding their benches with white players to increase a team’s fan base. The implicit assumption: If you are white, you will have more fans.

While it is certainly true that “owners were accused of padding their benches with white players,” the implicit assumption is too generous to basketball fans of the 1970s and 80s, the era most associated with this tactic. The assumption was not that individual white players were more popular, it was that fans would not stand for teams made up completely of black players. To simply say that owners padded their teams with white players because they were more popular makes it sound like a marginal consideration; that teams could increase their popularity a little by hiring white players. In reality, teams worried that fans would completely stop watching unless they hired a quota of white players regardless of skill. This is a much more harsh interpretation that assumes widespread racism. In support of this claim, look to a 1979 Sports Illustrated article, “There’s an Ill Wind Blowing For the NBA” or “‘Too Black’: Race in the “Dark Ages” of the NationalBasketball Association” in the 2010 edition of The International Journal of Sport and Society. It’s also important to think about where this issue of the 1970s and 80s came from. During the 1950s the rules, written and unwritten around race in basketball were much harsher. According to David Kamp in his GQ article, “Only the Ball was Brown,” in the NBA there was an “unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.” In college basketball, things were worse with institutions agreeing to “gentlemen’s rules” prohibiting the recruitment of black athletes. As with most things in college sports, fans and their rabid, rich counterparts called boosters, played a big role in enforcing these unwritten rules.

If the history of race and basketball is more pernicious than Stephens-Davidowitz makes it out to be, so is its present. Stephens-Davidowitz finishes his article with the rosy conclusion that the racial slant to NBA fandom is a refreshing change from the opposite tilt toward white privilege found in the rest of society. I’m all for rosy interpretations, especially in this political era, but it seems like a disservice not to also mention the quite well known trap of black popularity when confined to particular areas. In every fan who contests that “white men can’t jump” or play basketball as well as black athletes, there’s an overtone which states, “basketball (and music and acting) are all black people can be successful at.” Disproportionate adulation in one area can just as easily be seen as enforcing white privilege as lacking it.

Stephens-Davidowitz has produced rich data about race and the NBA but it needs more analysis from a cultural and historical angle.

Super Bowl 50 – Cam Newton and race in football

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

As is true of most American institutions, especially those with histories that go back 100 years or more, professional football has a complex, coded, and cruel history of racism. Although we have undoubtedly made giant strides toward correcting many of the racial issues in society and sports, many remain. The racial issues that remain are almost never talked about openly on television. Instead, they are referred to with a delicate coded language that you have to be on the inside of sports culture in order to catch. As surely as it is my goal on Dear Sports Fan to help people understand the basic terms of football, it is my responsibility to try to help sports outsiders understand the racist history and coded language of football. Super Bowl 50 provides a great opportunity to do this, particularly through the character of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

In my previews of the last two Carolina Panthers playoff games, here’s how I’ve described Newton: “Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high-profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.”

For a long time in football, even after the sport had been integrated, African-Americans were barred from playing quarterback either directly or because of unconscious bias on the part of coaches who thought quarterbacks required too much intelligence or leadership to be played well by Black athletes, who they felt were lacking in those qualities. Black players were pointed toward positions like running back, wide receiver, and any defensive role, all of which were thought to reward people with great “athleticism” or “natural talent” — both phrases used to describe African-Americans. The “athleticism” stereotype claims that African-Americans were either bred by slave-owners to be more physical than White people or are somehow genetically superior to White people (which offers an excuse to believe that the reverse could be true morally or intellectually). The “natural talent” descriptor is a subtle way of building on that idea while adding the insulting suggestion that Black athletes don’t practice, train, and study their craft as much as White athletes (who are often described as having “great motors” or as being “hard workers.”

As the cultural ban on African-American quarterbacks receded in the 1990s and 2000s, it was replaced by a new bias. Black people could be quarterbacks, but they wouldn’t do it the same way as White people had. The phrase “Black Quarterback” became synonymous with “running” or “scrambling” quarterback — a player who leveraged his athletic ability and improvisational skill to threaten a defense through passing or by running with the ball himself. Never mind that there had been plenty of White quarterbacks who had played with this style before, and some examples of African-American quarterbacks who did not play with this style (although most African-American quarterbacks have been scramblers… perhaps another example of bias in coaches who accepted Black quarterbacks only if they conformed to a single idea of how someone who looked like one way would play the position). The term “Black quarterback” also offered another way of attaching a derogatory association to African-Americans, because the accepted wisdom is that a scrambling quarterback will generally have a shorter and less successful career than a pocket passing quarterback.

Finally, in the 2010s, the NFL and football culture is beginning to accept that African-American quarterbacks can play the position with all different approaches. What remains of the bias, however, is a desire to control or judge Black quarterbacks on how their non football-related behavior on and off the field. Although the culture seems to be accepting that a Black quarterback may stand in the pocket and pass the ball instead of running himself, it’s still slow to accept that player’s personal expression through his clothing, public comments, and on-field behavior including celebrating with or remonstrating his teammates. This, then, is the final frontier for racial acceptance in football.

Cam Newton is, as I wrote before, almost the perfect lightning rod for all of this racially loaded history and emotion. He is a traditional so-called “Black quarterback” because of his power and proficiency running with the ball, but his equal success throwing the ball defies expectations. He also refuses to adhere to traditional notions of how a quarterback is expected to speak and behave. As a rookie, he famously stated that he wanted to be, not just a football player, but an “entertainer and icon.” This broke an unwritten rule, enforced more stringently, I would imagine, for African-Americans than White players, that players should focus only and obsessively on their sport. (Never mind that his opposite in this game, Peyton Manning, has hosted Saturday Night Live a half-dozen times and seems to be on every third television commercial.) On the field, he celebrates openly, joyously, and if you listen to some of his critics, notoriously. Again, this breach in football-decorum seems to be more noticed and criticized when a Black player breaches it than when a White one does.

If you’re looking for a positive ending to all of this, there is one. In sports, winning seems to wipe away almost all biases. Just by making the Super Bowl, Cam Newton has already silenced and even turned most of his critics. What’s more, the Panthers are favored to win this game, so there’s a good chance that Newton’s impact on race in football is just getting started.

Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Dear Sports Fan,

I know we’ve had presidents who were actors (well, at least one) and presidents who were generals, and lots who were lawyers. Have we had presidents who were athletes?


Dear Richard,

We have had presidents who were athletes. Off the top of my head, I know that Gerald Ford played center for a big-time college football team, which makes it doubly funny that his Saturday Night Live parody was almost completely based on his clumsiness. Barack Obama’s skill on the basketball court is probably a little overstated, but its importance to him cannot be. I believe Teddy Roosevelt overcame a fairly severe asthma condition to become an avid outdoorsman and big game hunter. And we all know how much exercise he got on the stairs in Brooklyn. I don’t think George W. Bush played a sport at the collegiate level, but the first pitch strike he threw out in the World Series after 9/11 was a chill-inducing presidential athletic moment in my memory. You deserve an answer with a little more weight though, so I researched the topic. Here is what I found.

I’ll stick with my original answer. Gerald Ford was one of our most athletic presidents. He not only played center for the University of Michigan, but he also played linebacker and long snapper. In 1932 and 1933 his University of Michigan Team was undefeated and won the national championship. Even more impressively, in 1934, Ford briefly quit the team in protest for the racially motivated benching of his best friend on the team, an African-American running back named Willis Ward.

George H. W. Bush also played college sports. He was first baseman and captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series ever held. Oddly enough, he was also a member of the Yale cheerleading squad, something his father, and his son, future president George W. Bush, also did at Yale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower has a compelling athletic back story. While attending the U.S. military academy at West Point, he played football, starting at running back and linebacker in 1912. He either made or missed a tackle on the legendary Jim Thorpe, (sources seem to disagree, but even today, a tackle is a highly subjective statistic, so we’ll give it to him.) He also injured his knee badly enough to need to give up football… although Wikipedia claims he then moved on to “fencing and gymnastics,” which are both highly knee-dependent sports, so who knows. There’s also the mysterious matter of the Eisenhower baseball controversy. In the summer before he went the West Point, he may or may not have played semi-professional baseball under the pseudonym, “Wilson.” If he did, then he may be our only president who personally violated the NCAA ban on paying “student athletes.”

Many other presidents have been athletes. George Washington apparently had a hell of an arm. John F. Kennedy was on the swimming team at Harvard, an avocation which may have saved his life when his patrol boat went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. But my favorite piece of presidential athletic trivia that I picked up was from this article on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not only a champion wrestler who took on all comers and a fair number of wagers during his life, but he was also an excellent handball player! In a moment that parallels and foreshadows President Obama’s tradition of playing basketball on election days by almost 150 years, Lincoln played handball (and was injured slightly) while waiting for news of the 1860 Presidential nominating convention.

Thanks for reading,

It is okay to see football as a battle between two quarterbacks

In the days leading up to a big football game, you will often hear people discussing a game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks. This description has great appeal. Quarterback is the single most important position in football, and quarterbacks are often the most well-known personalities on the team. How well a team fares usually has more to do with how well the team’s quarterback plays than the performance of any other single player. When the dominant narrative of a game is about the two opposing quarterbacks, there is always a backlash against the idea. This counter-narrative, put forth by fans in a knowing voice, reminds us that players of a single position in football, quarterback or otherwise, don’t actually play against each other. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two legendary quarterbacks whose teams will play each other in the AFC Championship Game this weekend, won’t even be on the field at the same time, unless it is for the coin flip or an awkward pre- or post-game hug. Fans who argue against the legitimacy of a quarterback vs. quarterback narrative have the full weight of literalness and snark on their side, but they’re missing the point.

Two athletes don’t need to play directly against one another or even perform at the same time to engage in epic competitions. Take the many fantastic duels in Olympic sports like figure skating, gymnastics, or any of the skiing disciplines. The one after another format of all three of these sports only acts to heighten the drama as one athlete tries to best the mark set by a previous competitor. Even in team sports, like basketball and soccer, where two opposing great players are usually on the court or pitch at the same time, they don’t necessarily come up directly against each other. In the past year’s NBA finals, the two best players on each team were LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Steph Curry for the Golden State Warriors. James is 6’8″ and over 250 lbs. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs. They barely interact more on a basketball court than players of the same position in football would on a football field, it’s just that football makes this division more explicit.

If we are going to personalize a football game, perhaps it’s more literally correct to talk about the matchup between a great quarterback and a great defensive player. For example, we could talk about the battle of wits and bodies between Peyton Manning and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Or even more directly, between Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib or whoever the Broncos decide to have guard him. Those are all fascinating sub-plots and one-on-one battles, but in the end, they’re not as compelling as Brady vs. Manning. There’s something more compelling about watching two people try to achieve the same thing. It’s why we often find that Presidential primaries are more interesting than general elections. No matter how interesting the candidates are in a general election, over 80% of everyone who watches, roots, and votes will do so based on party. In a primary, everything is up for grabs. That’s how it is in football. It’s fascinating to watch a great offensive player play against a great defensive player, but each of their successes and failures is so contextual. In a battle between two quarterbacks, even though the battle is not literal, the figurative battlefield is much more level. One quarterback may have better receivers or a better offensive line than the other, one quarterback may be up against a tougher defense than the other, but their goals are the same.

Simplifying football to a matchup of two quarterbacks is not a lazy simplification, it’s a convenient way of capturing one of the most exciting aspects of the sport.

Happy New Year 2016 from Dear Sports Fan

Happy New Year!!

2015 was a wonderful year in sports and a great year for Dear Sports Fan! Thank you for being a part of this experiment with me. I feel lucky to have been able to share so much of what I was thinking about with you during the past year. Here are some of the highlights of the year. Read to the bottom for a special treat for 2016.

In February, right before the Super Bowl, I published a series of heartfelt and deeply researched articles on the topic of brain injuries in football… and also what the top ten dirtiest sounding football phrases actually mean. In March, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournaments inspired me to share four business lessons one can learn from the sport and also four ways to fill out a tournament bracket if that’s more your speed.

In May and June, I came down with a bad case of World Cup fever and wrote dozens of articles about the 2015 World Cup. My non-gendered profiles of each of the women on the U.S. Women’s National Team were popular, which I was proud of, even if some of the most common search terms for them was “is [insert player name, most frequently Megan Klingenberg] married?” I fleshed out Dear Sports Fan’s coverage of soccer in general and shaped the articles into three email courses which are still available today: Soccer 101, Soccer 201 – Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202 – Culture. A personal high point was my trip to Montreal to watch the USA vs. Germany semifinal match.

After I moved to the Boston area in the spring, I decided to take Dear Sports Fan into the real world by starting a Meetup group. We’ve had a great time at our viewing parties, watching sports in an environment friendly to questions and welcoming to people who approach sports from all angles.

Throughout the year, I kept an eye out for moments when sports and the larger culture intersect. This has taken serious forms, like when shared my disgust with the drafting of Jameis Winston, and silly forms, like before the Kentucky Derby when I mined the world of musical theater for horse racing and betting tips, As always, the heart of the website has been a desire to make it easier for sports fans and non-fans to co-exist. With the NFL playoffs coming, it’s worth revisiting my thoughts on how a household can survive the football season without going crazy.

As one year comes to a close, another is just beginning. As a token of my appreciation for all the support I received during 2015, here is a New Year’s guide to the top 16 sporting events of 2016!

Are sports trying to ruin Christmas?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with the NFL football game on Christmas Eve and the five freaking NBA basketball games on Christmas Day? Are sports trying to ruin Christmas?


Dear Bonnie,

Sports leagues aren’t trying to ruin Christmas, but they are trying to profit off of them. At least, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is. There’s a simpler reason for why the National Football League (NFL) has a game on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is a Thursday this year, the NFL decided years ago to have games on Thursdays, and they’re not going to change their plans for anything, not even Christmas. The NFL’s general attitude seems to be that they are bigger than any other institution in the world, why would they worry about Christmas? As for the NBA, it’s worth a closer look at why they want to profit off of Christmas, what the model of success is, and how should we feel about it.

One of the biggest questions for most sports leagues is how to create or maintain interest during their long regular seasons. Each NBA team plays 82 games during the season; the National Hockey League (NHL) plays the same number. Major League Baseball (MLB) plays almost twice that number, a whopping 162! Football is too dangerous to play that much or that often. College football teams play from 10 to 12 games during their regular season and the NFL plays only 16. As a result, football doesn’t need to try quite as hard to sustain interest during their season. The other sports are not so lucky. Even the most die-hard fan feels a little lull of interest during the long middle of the regular season. So, leagues are always on the lookout for ways to create intrigue and interest during their season.

Ironically, the league that has been most successful at creating a spike of interest int he middle of their season has been the league that needs it the least, the NFL. As we’ve covered in great length on this site, the NFL owns Thanksgiving. Since the 1950s, when the Detroit Lions became the most common host team for Thanksgiving games, and certainly since 1970 when the Dallas Cowboys joined them and the two teams basically monopolized all of the Thanksgiving hosting, NFL football has become part and parcel of how many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. In the past seven years, the NHL has been wildly successful in replicating the NFL’s approach on New Year’s Day with its visually breathtaking outdoor Winter Classic Games. Hockey is a less popular sport, but “owning a holiday” has still proven to be a strong tactic. The Winter Classic games are watched by between three and five million people each year — around ten times more than other regular season hockey games, even the nationally televised ones.

Interest in unique sporting events can, at times, approach levels of interest that make them seem like holidays. The first two days of the men’s college basketball tournament, called March Madness, feel like a holiday, observed by office workers everywhere who develop fake colds or schedule elective surgery so they can watch, or just stream the games onto their work computers, slowing down the network for everyone. The NBA has already had some success with this, their All-Star Weekend is only half-jokingly called “Black Thanksgiving.” Still greater success, they hope, will be found by owning a real holiday rather than creating one of their own. That’s why, each Christmas, the NBA stacks as many games between their best and biggest teams as possible. This year, it’s five games in a row and the highlight is the first game between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers since they played in the finals last spring.

Now we get to the heart of your question — is the NBA right to do this? Does having so many (and so high-profile) basketball games televised on Christmas ruin the holiday? It doesn’t. Sure, it may ruin the holiday for players, coaches, and their families, but that’s a small segment of the population and one (since they are mostly very well compensated,) that most people don’t feel a ton of sympathy for. Aside from doctors, nurses, midwives, police, EMTs, fire fighters, and other essential workers, most of us have off on Christmas and if we don’t want our family celebrations sullied by sports on TV, we can either keep the TV off or change the channel.

Another segment of people who work on Christmas are people who work at Chinese restaurants and movie theaters too. Those are both traditional Christmas activities for people (stereotypically Jews.) That brings us to one point in favor of the NBA having games on Christmas: not everyone celebrates Christmas, and the NBA has a long history of inclusion. Back in the 1930s and 40s, professional basketball was mostly a Jewish endeavor. Even in the modern era of the NBA, three of the top ten scorers (Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neill, and the #1 scorer of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of all time have been Muslim. Of all the big American sports leagues, the NBA has the most international fan base. This includes a big contingent in China, a country with around a billion non-Christians.

For people who don’t celebrate Christmas and live in a predominantly celebrating country, like the United States, the holiday can be alienating. Having a football game to watch on Christmas Eve and more than 12 hours of basketball to watch on Christmas Day is a comforting thought. If you celebrate and the games get in your way, just remember — these teams will play roughly fifty times again this season before the playoffs start. There’s really no need to give too much attention to any one game in December, no matter what the NBA wants us to do.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays, however you celebrate,
Ezra Fischer

How can I still be a sports fan after Greg Hardy?

The sports blog Deadspin published an investigative story recently by Diana Moscovitz detailing the assault case against National Football League (NFL) player Greg Hardy. It’s a thoroughly dispiriting piece which describes and confirms many of our worst assumptions about human nature and the casual ease with which rich and powerful men in our society take advantage of their privileged positions. In case you haven’t read the piece, here’s roughly what we know:

  • Greg Hardy physically assaulted a woman, Nicole Holder, who he had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with for two years
  • Police were called onto the scene by two separate 911 calls, one from a witness, who was concerned about Holder’s well-being, and one from Hardy who claimed that Holder was assaulting him.
  • When the police arrived, they interviewed the people who were there, including Holder, Hardy, the witness who called 911, and other witnesses. They took photos of Holder’s injuries and also those of Hardy’s. These photos are available on Deadpin as part of their article.
  • The police eventually arrested Hardy and in 2014 he was convicted of assault.
  • Hardy later appealed the verdict and, largely because Holder refused to take part in the appeal process, eventually had his conviction overturned. The prosecutors suggested that Hardy had reached an undisclosed civil settlement with Holder in return for her silence in court.
  • Since then, Hardy has been reinstated to the NFL and signed as a free agent by the Dallas Cowboys. He served a four game suspension after his original 10 game sentence was reduced. He’s back on the field and playing well.

As a sports fan and as someone who spends a lot of time writing about sports for an audience of mostly non-sports fans, in addition to being totally disgusted by reading Deadspin’s article today, I found myself automatically thinking about what a non-sports fan might think about the article. The single biggest question that I imagined non-sports fans asking was, “how can you continue to watch football after reading a story like that?” My answer, and I assure you, I am not being glib at all about this, is that I am proud of sports today.

It’s good that sports are covered so vociferously by the sports media that stories like this are published. Players, coaches, and owners should be well aware of the fact by now that they can’t do something as awful as this and get away with it for long without it becoming known. Not every industry can say this. Take the restaurant industry, for example, which is just beginning to struggle with this issue in the workplace. What part of American life is more closely scrutinized than sports? Maybe politics or the music/movie/celebrity industry can rival sports, but most cannot. The close coverage of sports benefits society as a whole by surfacing a lot of issues which I believe are present in every walk of life.

  • Money and celebrity equate to great social power which can warp the way society treats a person, even to the extent of changing how police and the court system handle an illegal act.
  • Many domestic assault victims are vulnerable to private and public pressure that work against the punishment of their assaulter.
  • Many people are quick to disbelieve or blame a domestic assault victim and equally quick to excuse or forgive the assaulter. This is especially true in cases where the legal system has failed in convicting the assaulter, or even, as in this case, convicted him but lost on appeal.
  • The extent to which someone is forgiven or excused from having committed assault is affected by their real or perceived value to some element of society.

We need to find ways to break these patterns. How can we strengthen our ethical mores so that we don’t compromise our ethics, even for people who we venerate? How can we particularly empower our legal system to be invulnerable to the appeal of the rich and powerful? How can we ease or reverse the response to domestic assault victims so that we support their recovery and the punishment of their assaulters? How can we convince or force companies to hold employees to a higher standard than that of a flawed legal system without creating modern Red Scares or witch hunts? How can we apply forgiveness without denial and rehabilitate without letting people get away with crimes? How can we do this evenly across society?

We as a society need to answer all these questions together and, while I doubt that sports as a subculture is currently equipped to lead that movement, I am grateful to sports journalists who are at least bringing these problems to the surface persistently and eloquently.

Creating a culture of respect: what soccer can learn from rugby

This past weekend, I watched the championship match of the Rugby World Cup, which New Zealand won, 34-17 over Australia. The whole experience was great. Rugby is an awesome sport, full of athletic brilliance and suspense. I also love getting a chance to experience the titillating confusion one gets from engaging with an unknown sport. One of the most striking parts of rugby was the level of respect between the players and the referee. Particularly as someone who has played and watched soccer my entire life, I was astounded at the culture of respect rugby has managed to create. Soccer and rugby are quite similar sports, but the relationship between player and ref is so broken, so fractious, so disrespectful in soccer, that I couldn’t believe how good it was in rugby. What accounts for the difference? Is there something integral to the sport that makes soccer so unhealthy and rugby so healthy? Is soccer doomed to stay that way?

Soccer refs are petty dictators. They’re all-powerful and within the context of the game, completely unaccountable to anyone for anything. Yes, they have two or three linespeople/assistant referees, but those people are there only to provide information to the ref, every decision is hers to make alone. Even something as integral to the game as how long it lasts is controlled completely by the ref. Refs have total authority and their decisions are extremely important. Because soccer is such a low-scoring game, a ref’s decision to grant or not grant a penalty kick is often the difference between winning and losing. Likewise, a decision to give a yellow or red card can be vitally important.

Rugby refs have as much power as soccer refs but they’re infinitely more accountable and their decisions are slightly less important. Rugby is a higher scoring sport, which reduces the importance of most penalty calls. Rugby also does away with soccer’s silly insistence on living in a world where only the ref has the official time. Rugby refs can stop the clock but they do not control when the game is over. Red and yellow cards work similarly in rugby as in soccer, but because there are 15 players on the field, losing one for ten minutes (a yellow card) or the rest of the game (a red or two yellows) is not quite as big of an impediment to winning as it is in soccer. These technical differences pale in comparison to the major difference – refs wear body cameras, microphones, and ear pieces. What they say is constantly broadcast to television audiences and they are in dialogue with a replay official who can assist on penalty calls or even alert the ref of something he did not see. Video from their perspective is available to people watching on TV.

Let’s examine what happens when there’s a close, important penalty call to make in each sport. In soccer, a ref must make the call based only on what she sees, perhaps with some basic assistance from a linesperson who waves his flag if he believes there’s a foul. Soccer refs believe there’s an imperative to make the call quickly and decisively, so that they maintain order and continue to inspire respect from the players. They don’t need to explain their call to anyone, definitely not the players. Rugby treats this situation almost completely oppositely. Rugby refs don’t need to make a call only by memory and with an instant decision. They can stop the game, consult with their assistant refs on the field, watch video of the play, and ask the opinion of a video replay official. Although soccer has not implemented video replay, many American sports have. You can split them into two groups: baseball and hockey have centralized video replay offices that make the decisions when a play is reviewed; in basketball and football, the on-field refs watch video on court side or side-line video monitors and then make the decisions themselves. Rugby blends these two approaches. There is an off-field replay official, but she is there in a consultative role. The ref makes the final decision, based on video he sees. The major difference is this — the entire process is transparent! Audio from the conversation between the two officials is broadcast live on television and instead of running over to peer at a small and private video monitor, the ref reviews video using the stadium’s jumbotron screen, which both teams and the entire stadium audience can follow along with. There are no secrets about the process. By the time the decision has been made, everyone knows how the referee came to that decision.

Look at these videos to see the difference these two processes make.

First, a red card given to Jermaine Jones, a New England Revolution soccer player, after the ref misses an obvious red card.

Jones is understandably furious – not just because the ref should have seen and penalized the hand ball, but also because he knows that soccer rules offer no chance for reviewing this vitally important call. With such little respect between ref and player, there’s no choice for the ref but to throw Jones out of the game.

Compare that to an important call during the Rugby World Cup championship game (alas, this is not available on YouTube, but click this link and head to the 1:40 mark.) Ref Nigel Owens is making a decision about whether to give a New Zealand player a yellow card, forcing him to miss 10 minutes and his team to play a man down. He reviews the call on the video screen in the stadium and confers with his replay assistant. Once he makes his decision, he explains it to the player. He says that the evidence was “not marginal” and that the offense committed is a yellow card offense. He even ends his sentence with a rising, “okay?” seeking affirmation from the player for the decision. Almost unbelievably (to a soccer fan) the player nods, says okay, and heads off to serve his ten minute penalty. The two team captains stand alongside the ref, witnessing and validating the entire interaction.

Quick note — Nigel Owens is widely thought of as the world’s best rugby ref. He’s also gay. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, which is another giant difference between rugby and soccer. He’s also hysterical. Here’s a video of him chiding a player who was trying to affect his calls by reminding him that “this isn’t soccer.” And another of him making fun of a player’s line-out throw (which is supposed to be straight) by referring to his own sexuality.

Fixing soccer’s referee player interactions would be a big enough victory to look for in and of itself, but soccer’s culture of distrust and disrespect has wider implications. One example, and an important one, is the treatment of head injuries. In both soccer and rugby, once a player is substituted out, he cannot return to the field. This makes dealing with a suspected head injury tricky. Removing the player for a proper assessment means either playing at a numerical disadvantage or substituting and losing that player for the rest of the game, even if she doesn’t have a brain injury. Rugby has solved this problem neatly by allowing temporary head-injury substitutions so that players can be assessed and then return to the field if they are cleared without their team’s having to play down. The argument against this solution in soccer is that players could pretend to have a head injury to gain their team an extra substitution. It’s true that rugby teams are allowed eight substitutions compared to soccer’s three, so the incentive to cheat to gain another sub is less in rugby than in soccer, but I think the bigger difference is cultural. Soccer’s culture of distrust, which stems from its player referee interactions bleed over and make it more difficult to transform the game to be safer for its players.


So, where does soccer’s culture of disrespect and distrust really come from? Are ref player interactions really the source of all of this? I doubt it. You need look no farther than its governing body, FIFA, and the rampant corruption which is only now being addressed by international law enforcement. If soccer refs are the symbol of soccer authority and the top soccer authorities are almost unanimously worthy of incarceration, why should we expect players to respect refs?

NBA Basketball in 2015 is not selfish

The 2015-2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) season started yesterday. This offers a great opportunity to write about the current state of the NBA and one of the most persistent myths about the league. If you talk to enough people about sports as often as I do, you get used to hearing people say they “don’t like the NBA because the play is (or the players are) too selfish.”

There are two ways of interpreting that comment: a cynical way and a way that gives the benefit of the doubt to the person making it. Let’s start by giving the benefit of the doubt to critics of the NBA. Viewed in the best possible light, the criticism of the NBA as selfish is based on a belief that there is less passing in the NBA than there should be or than there once was. In the eyes of these critics, NBA basketball is typified by a player dribbling the ball up the court, telling his teammates to get out of the way, trying to beat his defender one-on-one, and then shooting the ball. In basketball terms, this is called an “isolation” or “isolation basketball.”

The truth is, isolation basketball has been on the decline for the last twenty years of NBA history and is now almost universally recognized as a losing tactic. Kirk Goldsberry, Grantland’s chief basketball illustrator and an excellent writer as well, wrote an article recently that summarized the shift in tactics from isolation ball to today’s NBA and explaining its statistical underpinnings. It is a wonderful article – clear and even poetic – and it explains why isolation ball, particularly when it leads to two point shots that aren’t layups or dunks, has become a tactic used only by the most clueless organizations. He writes with the strength of quantitative evidence:

Last season, NBA players attempted just over 200,000 shots. Fifty-three percent of these shots qualify as assisted, while 47 percent qualify as unassisted.1 Overall, the league’s shooters converted 45 percent of their shots — the assisted tries went in 51 percent of the time, while the unassisted shots scored only 38 percent of the time.

and also gives compelling anecdotal support to the theory. He quotes San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as saying of today’s basketball, “You move it or you die.” Popovich is the most well-respected modern coach. He is seen as a guru of team building and on-court tactics. When he says, “you move it or you die,” he’s arguing that winning basketball has its foundation in teamwork and passing; in trust and interdependency. Want hard evidence? Look at a team assists statistic from last year. The team with the highest assist ration, the Golden State Warriors, won 67 regular season games (out of 82, by far the most in the league) and the championship. The team with the second highest assist ratio, the Atlanta Hawks, won the second most games in the league and made it to the Eastern Conference Championships before losing.

Even if the tactical shift in the NBA were in the opposite direction — toward isolation – it’s not altogether clear to me why that would be thought of as selfish. Selfishness has to do with intent. Tactics have to do with winning. If the tactic most likely to result in a victory involved giving the ball to a single player and asking him to do everything, then that would be the correct tactic. It would involve an incredible amount of unselfishness on the part of that player’s teammates, who would be asked to do the hard work of playing defense and setting picks, and on the part of the coach, who wouldn’t get very much acclaim for taking such a simple tactical approach. Maybe most of all, it would take unselfishness on the part of the player being asked to “carry the load” as they say in sports-lingo. Taking a majority of your team’s shots is exhausting. Carrying the ball up the court and taking every shot requires an almost super-human effort. This is close to what LeBron James was asked to do for part of last year’s playoffs because of injuries to his teammates and it clearly took a toll on him. He’s an incredible athlete, but even he had was visibly drained by the effort. Watching him force himself to keep handling the ball, keep driving to the hoop, and keep shooting when his body was telling him it would be easier to pass it up was a great lesson in unselfishness.

The last element of the question of selfishness in the NBA is the most delicate. In some ways, the criticism has nothing to do with tactics. The word selfish is a racially loaded word. I’ve written about this before. As basketball shifted from being a professional sport dominated by white and Jewish athletes to being one dominated by African-Americans, its default criticisms shifted as well. This is when basketball started being criticized as being selfish… and thuggish… and a whole bunch of other things that black people have been unfairly labeled as during the complicated and unfortunate racial history of our country.

It’s time to stop this. From now on, let’s all be more aggressive in our response to people who say they don’t like the NBA because it is selfish. They may not be racist — probably aren’t, in fact — but they are parroting a critique with a very bad history that isn’t at all, not even if you squint, supported by the actual evidence of what is going on in the NBA.

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field?

Dear Sports Fan,

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field? My partner and I were watching the playoffs last night and the television cameras were focusing on some bleachers set up on a building across the street from the stadium. We wondered if that was officially part of the stadium or not.


Dear Matthew,

Those seats are cool, aren’t they? Wrigley Field is one of Major League Baseball’s last two great old historic baseball stadiums. It was built in 1914 for a baseball team called the (I kid you not) Chicago Whales, but the present tenants, the Chicago Cubs, have played there since 1916. As was true with many of the old stadiums, it’s built inside the city, instead of in a suburb with lots of room for parking like most modern stadiums. One result of this is that the stadium is surrounded by relatively normal city streets with buildings on them that are around the same height, at least on the two outfield sides. As you noticed last night, many of these neighboring houses now sport bleacher seating on their roofs, from which you can watch the game. You can actually see them on Google Maps:

The Wrigley Rooftops, as they are called, have their own Wikipedia page, which I leaned heavily on for this article. How they got there and who owns them is a surprisingly long and twisted story.

For most of Wrigley Field’s history, the neighboring rooftops were home to informal gatherings. Watching the games from them was a perk neighbors enjoyed, perhaps as a consolation for the literally hundreds of thousands of drunk people the stadium brought to their neighborhood every year. Sometime in the 1980s, some of the people who owned the buildings started bulking up their seating arrangements and charging admission. This escalated gradually to where we are today: most of the buildings are no longer residential. Their primary purpose is to support the bleachers on their roofs. Some of them even have bars and restaurants inside. They provide a stadium-like experience at stadium-like prices.

As you might suspect, the people who own the Chicago Cubs have not always been happy about the idea of others profiting off of their investment so directly and in such a similar way to how they are trying to make a profit. In 2002, the Cubs sued the owners of the Wrigley Rooftops for copyright infringement. I guess the idea was that rooftop viewers were engaged in an act analogous to pirating a TV feed. Most of the rooftop establishments eventually settled out of court and agreed to pay the Cubs 17% of their proceeds as a form of royalty. The Cubs agreed to officially endorse those roofs. That led to a detente which lasted almost a decade until the current owner of the Cubs, Thomas S. Ricketts, who had purchased the team in 2009 after the settlements, decided to renovate those sides of the stadium in ways which would obstruct the rooftop views. All hell broke loose. In a classic turn of legalistic fate, the owners of the rooftops sued the Cubs! Their argument was that the Cubs were now breaching the contract they entered into during the settlement of the last lawsuit.

Despite this antagonistic and adversarial relationship, (or maybe because of it), the era of the independent rooftop may soon be over. Frustrated with the lawsuit filed by the rooftop owners, the Cubs have decided that it would be easier and cheaper in the long-run to simply buy the neighboring buildings with their rooftop clubs. To date, Ricketts has purchased at least six of the buildings, a process made easier by the fact that some of them seemed to be in financial straits to begin with. How long the other rooftops will be able to hold out remains to be seen.

That’s the story of the unique Wrigley Rooftops. It’s a classic American story of lawsuit and counter-suit that fits America’s Pastime perfectly.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer